Kernel Rating (out of 5): (3 out of 5)
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 118 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 14+. This film about young Thurgood Marshall, who made history by being the first black man to serve on the Supreme Court, focuses on a case early in his career in which a rich white woman accuses her black driver of raping her. Sexual violence is obviously a major component, and details of the rape are discussed and recreations of it are shown. The film also focuses on the discrimination, racism, and oppression of the time, with numerous uses of the n-word and other insults, curse words, and racist language; a variety of physical violence, including fistfights; adults drink and smoke cigarettes; and there are some implied sex scenes and characters shown in bed together in various states of undress.
Chadwick Boseman makes a charismatic Thurgood Marshall, but this biopic is not what the legendary man deserved. Although the film attempts to tell a larger story about the civil rights movement, its focus is too often turned away from Marshall himself.
By Roxana Hadadi
“Marshall” is not the movie that should have been made about Thurgood Marshall. The man who commanded respect everywhere he went, from suing the University of Maryland after they denied him entry into their law school to the numerous times he appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court, is often pushed to the side in the biopic that bears his own name. Chadwick Boseman is a fantastically confident Marshall, but the movie forces him to give up the spotlight too often.
“Marshall” is based on an early case in the future Supreme Court Justice’s career, 1941’s The State of Connecticut v. Joseph Spell, and the script by Michael and Jacob Koskoff seems to share quite a bit of detail with a 2005 feature about the case in Legal Affairs magazine. In the film version, which somewhat tweaks the timeline and character motivations, it’s a tough time for Thurgood Marshall (Boseman, of “Captain America: Civil War”): As the only lawyer working for the NAACP, he’s criss-crossing the country constantly, working to defend black men and women falsely accused of various crimes. But with each legal defeat, often fueled by racist juries and prejudiced judges, the NAACP is put in an increasingly precarious position. They need funding, and to secure donors, they need courtroom wins.
Under this pressure, Marshall travels to Bridgeport, Conn., where Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown, of “Our Idiot Brother”) has been accused of rape by his employer, wealthy socialite Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson, of “Mother’s Day”). She insists that he raped her, but he insists that he’s innocent—and so Marshall takes the case, even though he can’t practice law in Connecticut. All he needs is for a local lawyer to take the case and then pass it off, which is where Sam Friedman (Josh Gad, of “Beauty and the Beast”) comes in, with years of experience in civil court defending insurance companies against making payments to little old ladies.
But then the case is assigned to a hotshot prosecutor with his eye on a Senate seat and a rigid sense of his own white superiority, and to a judge who knows the prosecutor’s family and who will do everything he can to maintain the status quo, no matter how oppressive it is, and he bans Marshall from speaking at all in court. Instead, he can only advise Friedman, who must defend Spell on his own—and who, as a Jewish American, must suffer from prejudice and attack by the same racists who have no problem lobbing slurs and threats of violence at Thurgood, too.
What comes next is your typical boilerplate courtroom drama, with the ups and downs typical of a format that moves unyieldingly forward from opening arguments to witness questioning to cross examination to closing arguments. But what frustrates here is that because Marshall can only advise, he doesn’t deliver the probing questions or the knockout punches in the courtroom, nor does he directly suffer the defeats. Instead, that position is occupied by Gad, who has nice chemistry with Boseman but, well, the film isn’t named “Friedman,” it’s named “Marshall,” and the titular character himself just isn’t given enough to do.
On the one hand, the fact that Marshall doesn’t solely bear the responsibilities of Spell's defense attorney provides the film with the opportunity to place Marshall in different situations, whether it’s investigating the crime scene or getting to know the family of the local NAACP representative, and of course Boseman exudes such intelligence and likability that he’s wonderful in any setting. But on the other hand, while the movie’s larger points about the civil rights movement and its need for a variety of allies are valid, they still translate into reductive scenes like Marshall realizing from a random flirty woman’s comment the key behind the case, or the villains’ ham-fisted cruelty, or black-and-white flashback scenes that depict the alleged rape in a lurid way. For all the nuance the movie wants to provide Marshall, Friedman, and their partnership, too many other elements are superficially presented.
That’s a shame, because after seeing Boseman in this film, it’s clear that he would have similarly excelled in an adaptation of a different case the legendary lawyer handled—Brown v. Board of Education being the most obvious choice, and the one with the most impact for decades to come. Both Boseman and Marshall deserved more than the film we received.
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